Review: "Television" is Appointment Viewing
Written and directed by Cameron Darwin Bossert
Presented by Thirdwing at the wild project
195 E. 3rd Street, Manhattan, NYC
April 6-22, 2023
|Aprella Godfrey Barule in Television. Photo by Valerie Terranova.|
Mass media, for better and worse, helps to create what scholar Benedict Anderson termed imagined communities, which foster the perspective of belonging to a group, such as a nation, that includes many people one doesn't know and will never actually meet. Television, the new play from the reliably compelling Cameron Darwin Bossert, imagines what happens when the televisual media consumed by a community is produced by that same, actual community. Television is presented by Thirdwing, a hybrid theater and streaming company founded by Bossert with a subscription model offering new content every month, either online, in-person, or both, and tickets to the show are available on an individual basis or as part of a monthly subscription or a yearly subscription or non-subscription pass.
The community at the center of Television is the small town of Avondale, Colorado, and the year is 1959, identified by many as the end of American TV's "Golden Age." Wesley Harris (Arash Mokhtar) and Barry Seabright (Bobby Underwood) work at a local station that has just lost its CBS affiliation to another station with a larger, more powerful broadcast tower, and they need a way to fill a suddenly empty schedule. Fortuitously, local college student Billy Fitzwater (Cian Genaro) has been doing some creative writing on the side, and soon enough, Barry and local actress Sandra Keefe (Aprella Godfrey Barule) are bringing Billy's words to life on the screen–though not without some friction between Sandra and Wesley as her director; Avondale's mail carrier Lionel Sapinsley (Wesli Spencer) is being offered an interview show; and it is looking like there are only upsides all around, even if Billy's father Arnold (Dikran Tulaine), a veteran of two wars and the Great Depression, is having more trouble getting on board with this TV thing than Billy's homemaker mother, Patty (Mary Monahan). Ironically, although Billy avowedly wants to avoid the high drama of mainstream TV in his own scripts, real life has its own ideas.
Television evocatively conjures a time and place when Billy's arrival home from college on a train could hold a certain glamor and junk mail could be seen as an intrusion on decent folks living decent lives. At the same time, intriguing parallels suggest themselves between the hyperlocal, hyper-niche programming produced under Wesley and not only the much later phenomenon of cable access programming but also of today's YouTubers and Twitch and TikTok stars. The particulars of the generational conflict between Billy and Arnold, which comes to a riveting head in a fantastic scene late in the play, would similarly not be out of place in many a contemporary household. A scene that juxtaposes a theatrical performance of Chekov with televised instructions on how best to slice vegetables is funny but also doesn't necessarily foreclose the possibility that both have their place. At one point, we hear audio from Howdy Doody that asserts a two-way gaze and a two-way bond between the TV and its audience, something that Lionel finds to be a lie when he begins answering viewer mail rather than interviewing locals, losing that face to face, person to person interaction, a point with, again, clear applications to our present moment. Knowing too much about the people in one's community, though, as the letters–and other events–suggest, can make it hard to preserve the anodyne image of, in this case, small town America.
Tulaine, as the gruff Arnold, makes an immediate impression among a terrific cast who bring an indisputable richness to their characters, whether in some of the more humorous show-within-a-show scenes such as Lionel's shaky start as an on-air personality or some of the moments of tension and intensity within the Fitzwater household. Television might both bring us together and drive us apart, but Television should only unite us in admiration.